How This LA Professional and Cyclist Stretches $70 a Week Into a Mouthwatering Plant-Based Diet

He experiments with vegetables during the week, and relaxes the protocol on weekends.

Miguel de los Rios
Photo: Courtesy of Miguel de los Rios

Visual effects supervisor Miguel de los Rios technically lives alone in Los Angeles — but his girlfriend is over every other day. So he jokes that he feeds "1.5 people" on his grocery budget of about $70 per week.

"My budget is not extremely tight, but I try to stick to it and be consistent for mental sanity," he says. "I also know from painful experience that L.A. can get very expensive very quickly, so I try to stick to it."

But there's exciting news coming down the pike: The pair are officially moving in together, so he expects that happy development might push the budget up. Here's how de los Rios shops for healthy fare in a high cost-of-living city with a growing household.

Ethical Grocery Delivery

De los Rios spends much of his budget, about $40 to $45 weekly, on a subscription service called Imperfect Foods.

"Every week they deliver fresh produce that is just not aesthetically pleasing, or for some other reason didn't make it to the shelves — for example, they aren't a certain size — or is simply hard to sell because there's overstock," he explains. "The produce is still great: It's fresh, it's local, and it's cheaper than buying it in a supermarket." Plus, it minimizes food waste in the community.

He also shops at farmers' markets for produce and spends the rest of the budget, about $30, on non-produce pantry staples, mainly from Trader Joe's.

"Sometimes I'll go in person to Ralphs or Whole Foods but only if I'm looking for something very specific that TJs might not have," he says.

Before the pandemic hit, de los Rios used to go out to eat out at least three times a week. Now, he's taking most of his meals at home. So, "even though my grocery budget has increased, overall I'm spending less money on food," he says. "My two passions in life are eating and cycling, and I'm happy that since COVID started I still get to do both. Cooking all of my meals has also forced me to get more creative with meals."

Plant-Based Pivot

De los Rios recently started eating an exclusively plant-based diet about four to five days a week, which he says has also impacted his overall grocery spend.

"I see now how much I was spending on meat and dairy products," he explains. "I still eat them, but try to limit anything animal-related to just the weekend — and my finances can tell."

He says that the plant-based shift has been a "complete education," and he's learning a lot about previously unfamiliar ingredients. "I constantly buy vegetables I haven't even heard of but that are cheap that day, and then get home and do quick Google searches for recipe ideas," he says. "This has really opened my options."

Here's a sample grocery list:

  • leafy greens (mostly kale and spinach)
  • beets
  • carrots
  • limes ("I go through a lot of limes because I use them for cocktails too!")
  • blueberries
  • red peppers
  • onions
  • red quinoa
  • mushrooms ("All the mushrooms I can find!")
  • fresh or frozen sea bass (depending on the price) and salmon — but he only eats this on weekends
  • cheese ("So much cheese! I try to eat only plant-based during the week, but cheese is my cheat meal.")

"I'm also a seasonal shopper, so a lot of my vegetables and fruit change with the season," he says. "I won't buy canned fruit or frozen fruit. I don't need my fruit to be organic, but it has to be fresh."

Farmers' Market Finds

He calls farmers' market tomatoes his worthiest grocery splurge: "I don't know the science behind it, but heirloom tomatoes from the farmers' market taste better than any other tomato."

He also buys mushrooms at the farmers' market, "even if I don't know exactly what they are or how to use them," to experiment.

Calling mushrooms "the most versatile ingredient," de los Rios grills them, roasts them, sous vides them — you name it. He uses mushrooms as a meat substitute in a main dish, as well as in side dishes. He eats them raw in salads or fries them up to add crunchiness and flavor.

Flexible Schedule With Relaxed Weekends

As a busy professional who likes to experiment in the kitchen, de los Rios prefers not to create rigid meal plans.

"I don't think I have the patience and dedication to meal plan," he says. "I improvise a lot and like to test new ways to optimize my time, since my work schedule can get crazy."

Typically, for breakfast, he'll whip up a green juice (with kale, celery, green apple, spinach, and lime, for example). His lunches are different from day to day, sometimes a fruit smoothie, or leftovers from the night before. His go-to dinners include soup, vegetables with quinoa or rice, or marinated and grilled vegetables like broccoli, snap peas, and mushrooms in miso with rice noodles.

On weekends, he spends more time cooking. "It's something I actually enjoy. I have a grill, and I use it a lot. I usually make grilled fish and vegetables. Or I make potato fries in the air fryer and I roast vegetables and grilled shrimp," he says.

The Colombia-born home cook also has a tradition with his girlfriend of making a traditional Colombian breakfast: scrambled eggs with tomato and scallions and arepas.

"Arepas are a sort of cornbread typical from Colombia," he explains. "If a tortilla and a pancake had a baby, it would be an arepa."

He says that flexibility and adaptability make for a happy, well-fed, and on-budget home cook.

"Be open to change your list and adapt your plan based on what is in season — buying off-season is always expensive," he says. "If you are open to changing your menu mid-grocery trip, you can save a lot of money and you are always eating fresh. Also, that's a sure-fire way to make sure your menu doesn't stay the same and it varies with time."

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